‘Comics Sherpa’ Is Guide to Possible Syndication

By: Dave Astor

Aspiring creators can post their comics on personal Web sites, but these sites usually don’t generate much traffic. Traffic isn’t a problem when strips appear on Comics Sherpa.

“We’re getting more than one million page views a month,” said Scott Shorter, who was involved in the creation of Comics Sherpa just over a year ago. He’s director of content development and acquisitions at uclick — the online syndicator that shares the Andrews McMeel Universal umbrella with Comics Sherpa, uComics.com, and Universal Press Syndicate.

Why so much traffic for Comics Sherpa? Many people who visit uComics.com to read well-known strips from Universal and other syndicates also click on the link that leads them to ComicsSherpa.com. There, they can see “undiscovered” comics by more than 100 artists.

“People looking for ‘Garfield’ and ‘Doonesbury’ noticed me, too,” said “Lost Sheep” cartoonist Dan Thompson, a Comics Sherpa graduate now with uclick and uComics.com. “I don’t think there would have been any other venue to get that many readers that fast.”

To post their work on Comics Sherpa, cartoonists pay $9.95 a month for a half year or $99 for a full year — an amount comparable or less than the typical cost of Web-site hosting. In return, their comics, bios, and other content are displayed and archived online, and they can also get a link to their personal Web site. There is no selection process; any artist with a credit card can participate.

Visitors to Comics Sherpa can rate the comics (5.0 is the highest score) and e-mail their comments about them. Executives at uclick and Universal monitor this feedback and read the comics themselves to see which features have the best writing, art, characters, and humor. They also look for “consistency,” noted “Bob the Squirrel” creator Frank Page — who, like Thompson, moved from Comics Sherpa to uclick and uComics.com

Thompson recalled that it was very helpful to draw a “Lost Sheep” installment, get it online almost immediately, and then receive quick reactions from readers in the U.S. and abroad. He added that doing “Lost Sheep” for several months on Comics Sherpa gave him a chance to flesh out the feature more than he could have done in the typical 24-strip submission to a print syndicate.

Cartoonists post their work on Comics Sherpa as frequently or as seldom as they want. Many do a new comic every day, said Shorter, as they try to approximate a syndicated artist’s demanding schedule.

In fact, Page switched “Bob the Squirrel” from weekly to daily almost immediately after joining Comics Sherpa. “I figured I had to have the discipline if I was going to make it in the syndication game,” said the 28-year-old creator. Of course, Page already knew something about discipline as editorial cartoonist and graphic designer for the Rome, N.Y., Daily Sentinel. Doing those two jobs, plus “Bob the Squirrel,” currently means 80-hour workweeks for Page.

Thompson is also very busy. In addition to creating “Lost Sheep,” he draws about 1,000 freelance cartoons a year for magazines and Web sites. “This was a leap year, so I’m doing a couple more in 2004,” joked Thompson, 32, a Connecticut resident who’s moving to North Carolina this month.

He and Page are among a select group of three cartoonists graduating from Comics Sherpa to uComics.com and uclick (whose clients include newspaper Web sites). Moving on means these cartoonists no longer have to pay the Comics Sherpa fee; in fact, they get some royalties — as well as even more exposure.

The third Comics Sherpa graduate is “.blue” creator Julien Tromeur, whose wordless, all-digital comic is called “unique” by Shorter. Page’s thumbnail description of his humor strip: “It’s about a squirrel named Bob and the humans he’s adopted.” And Thompson said his humor comic focuses on a sheep named George who decided “I’m out of here” — leaving the flock to explore the world.

Will these three cartoonists eventually join the relatively small flock of comic creators syndicated to print newspapers? That’s not guaranteed for Comics Sherpa alums, but these cartoonists are certainly becoming known to executives at Universal and other syndicates.

Unlike syndicated cartoonists, the artists who post on Comics Sherpa aren’t edited. Shorter said artists can push the envelope, but know they are working for a family-oriented site. “We depend on readers to notify us if they see something offensive,” said Shorter, adding that few cartoonists have crossed the line.

What’s behind the Comics Sherpa name? As the site explains, “The Sherpas of Nepal are famous for their expertise in the perilous pursuit of alpine expeditioning. Aspiring cartooonists need a trusted guide to face the equally treacherous challenge of developing a comic feature of their own. The Comics Sherpa can be that guide.”

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